The Kendall Reviews Interview
Yvonne Miller talks to Catherine McCarthy
KR: This interview was conducted October 2021
Today I am interviewing Catherine McCarthy, a horror and dark fantasy author from beautiful Wales. She is a firm favourite and immediate buy all author. She has recently released her new collection of stories called Mists and Megaliths, a collection of stories based on her homeland, Wales.
Yvonne Miller: Catherine, you write in such a magical way. The stories instantly come to life in my head, just how do you convey such imagery in your writing?
Catherine McCarthy: First of all, Yvonne, I want to say thank you, both for your kind words in the introduction and also for taking the time to interview me.
You know, it’s so hard to communicate how I convey the imagery. It almost feels like it’s inside me, those pictures are in my mind and I just release them in words. One thing I would say is part of it stems from evoking all the senses in my writing. Often you come across writers who are adept at conveying the visual, but who forget to mention scent or sound which are so important in stimulating a sensory atmosphere. That advice comes with a warning though: don’t overdo the description. You have to be especially careful about which bits of the story need that kind of attention.
YM: What do you think comes first, plot or characters?
CM: For me, it depends on the kind of story I’m writing. Some are by their very nature more plot based, while others are all about the characters. For example, my collection, Mists and Megaliths, has about a 50/50 split, whereas my novella, Immortelle, is definitely character driven.
Having said that, I think I tend to favour character driven stories, both in reading and writing. I guess it’s because the human condition interests me more than the bigger picture.
When concocting an idea for a new story, around two-thirds of the time I begin with a character in turmoil and go from there.
YM: Do you have a favourite character that you have written? If so, who? And what makes them so special?
CM: I tend to fall in love with all my characters, even the bad ones, so it feels a bit like being asked which of your children you prefer. The thing is, as a writer, you make such an emotional investment in their plight that it’s difficult to step away and see it emotionally.
Having said that, some characters feel so real to you, almost like you know them personally. That’s not necessarily because you’ve based the character on someone you know in real life, but because you’ve seen the world through their eyes. You know how they dress, what they like to eat, even how they think.
In Mists and Megaliths, I made a huge emotional investment in the old man in the story, Coblynau. I feel strongly about how the elderly are treated in society and have first-hand experience of a relative in a care home, so this is probably the reason I feel that way.
I also adore Stan from the dark comedy, Two’s Company, Three’s a Shroud. He’s so typical of the kind of real-life character who would live in the town I set the story in. Such a character!
I know from the feedback I’ve received that both these guys, opposites though they might be, have found a place in readers’ hearts.
YM: As we’ve mentioned before Wales is a big influence in your writing, what do you think makes it the ideal backdrop to horror stories?
CM: I frequently use the landscape here in Wales as a stimulus. From the harsh, post-industrial valleys in the south, where I grew up, to the gentle sublime countryside and coast where I now live, you’ll be hard pushed to find a country with so many contrasting locations. Similarly, the people. The people of Wales are renowned for being open and friendly. I think, because I’m Welsh, I can get away with saying, we’re also nosy! The Welsh are curious creatures, always on the look-out for new faces. I’m quite chatty and will strike up a conversation with strangers no matter where I am. My husband despairs!
Really, though, it’s about the landscape. In Wales, it’s always possible to seek out somewhere remote, a place that conjures images of how life must have been long ago. I particularly love old churches and graveyards, cromlechs and standing stones. Each of them has its own story to tell. In Mists and Megaliths, location is key. Most of the stories feature historic or wild locations.
Immortelle (Published July 2021 by Off Limits Press) is set at the tiny seaside hamlet of Mwnt which is a twenty minute drive from where I live. The graveyard is really the central location of the story, as is the pottery where Elinor, a ceramic artist, lives and works. You’d be hard pushed to find a more inspirational setting than the 12th century church at Mwnt. Set close to the edge of the cliff-top, it’s surrounded by farmland. Beneath it lies the beach, complete with disused lime kiln, which is the place where a few of the more dramatic scenes take place.
YM: What were the key challenges that you faced when bringing together Mists and Megaliths?
CM: Some stories involved quite a bit of research because of their historical settings. I like to be as accurate as possible in such cases. The short story, Lure, also involved a steep learning curve. It’s a story about a guy fishing. I have a maggot phobia and have never fished in my life. When you haven’t a clue about a subject, it’s harder to get the authenticity of the story right.
It was also quite challenging deciding on which stories would make the final cut. The overall theme of the collection is stories set in Wales, of which I had more then enough for a collection. However, a few were out on submission so I had to wait for responses before making the final decision. As it turned out, around half the stories have been previously published, either online or in anthologies; the other half is original material. I like to do this with a collection because it means that fans who enjoy your work, but who may not have bought all the anthologies you’ve featured in, get access to stories they’ve missed. At the same time, fans who may have read one or two in previous anthologies don’t feel cheated because they, too, can access brand new material.
YM: How many plot ideas are just waiting to be written? Can you tell us about one?
CM: I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like leaving things half finished. I might start a story and if I feel it’s not going anywhere, I might abandon it. This happens rarely, though. I think I have just one or two shorts that are half-baked at the moment.
As far as longer pieces go, it’s a whole other ball game. Such a lot of time and research gets invested into a novella or novel that it can be devastating when it doesn’t work out. Of course, such a situation can be partly avoided if you’re a meticulous planner, which I’m not.
I’ll tell you about a novella I’m currently four thousand words into. Having carried out quite a bit of research, because it has a historical setting, I wrote the opening (which I loved) and knew exactly where I intended going next. However, this coincided with me reading a best-selling novel, and unbelievably, the best-seller turned out to have the exact same plot twist as I’d planned. Honestly… I couldn’t believe it! Of course, that means I either have to completely change direction or give it up altogether. It’s likely to be the latter, but I’m still working on a way around it.
YM: Just for fun –
Endless Summer or Endless Winter?
CM: Endless summer – no hesitation! I have awful circulation and suffer from Reynaud’s. I detest being cold! Every winter, it’s chilblains and white fingers. Nightmare! Living in a two-hundred-year-old cottage doesn’t help, either. Twenty-three inch thick walls are fine in summer but make for poor insulation in winter. The price you pay for atmosphere!
YM: Death by drowning or Fire?
CM: Neither, thank you! I know I just said I hate the cold, but the thought of being burned alive! Actually, I’ve recently written a short story about death by fire. It’s currently out on submission and I have to say, I think it’s my darkest yet, possibly because it’s based on an event that happened to people I knew personally. I’ve also written about death by drowning. If you read Cragen from Mists and Megaliths, you’ll know what I mean. Both fire and water feature in Immortelle, too. I love weaving the elements into my writing.
YM: To finish, can you share with us what you have been reading lately?
CM: I usually get through at least a book a week, though that doesn’t seem to be helping my long TBR list at present, because at the same time, I usually add at least one or two per week to it.
I try to read a balance of indie/self published as well as traditionally published books, and some of my favourites so far this year have been Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street and Tim McGregor’s Hearts Strange and Dreadful. My next read will be Kev Harrison’s Paths Best Left Untrodden which has just been published. I loved his previous novella, The Balance, so I have great hopes for this one.
Thank you, Yvonne, for the super questions. I enjoyed answering them. As a writer, it’s good to reflect on why we make the decisions we do from time to time, and this provided the ideal opportunity.
If anyone wants to discover more about my work, I can be found here: www.catherine-mccarthy-author.com
From deep within the wild Welsh countryside, Catherine McCarthy spins dark yarns that deliver a sting in the tail.
She is the author of the collections Door and other twisted tales, Mists and Megaliths, and also the novella, Immortelle (published by Off Limits Press July 2021): a Gothic tale of grief and revenge, set on the West Wales coast.
Her short stories and flash fiction have been published in various places online and in anthologies, including The British Fantasy Society Horizons, Flame Tree Press, Kandisha Press and Curiosities.
In 2020 she won the Aberystwyth University Prize for creative writing for her magical realism story, The Queen’s Attendant.
Having traded the challenges and rewards of teaching for the hurdles and merits of writing, Catherine McCarthy now lives with her illustrator husband in a two hundred year old cottage in West Wales amidst spectacular, story-inspiring countryside.
When she is not writing she may be found sewing in her ‘Garden Beehive’ or wandering the coast path, complete with picnic, sun-cream and just enough money for ice-cream.
You can follow Catherine on Twitter @serialsemantic
Well, what can I say about myself? I’m a 33-year-old married woman and mum to 3 crazy boys, aged 13,6 and 4. My eldest has a genetic condition that causes a visual impairment so as you can imagine life can be very chaotic and provides many challenges along the way but I would 100% never change any of them. They fulfil my life beyond measure.
I adore books – I adore shouting about books! I’m a reviewer of mainly horror and dark fantasy. Whether that’s featuring werewolves, evil creatures or the depravity of humanity, I will read them all.
You can follow Yvonne on Twitter: @coycaterpillar
Please visit Yvonne’s Official Website: www.thecoycaterpillarreads.blog